After hearing the premise behind Marc Abraham’s Flash of Genius—to paraphrase John Goodman in the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink (1991)—I could already feel my butt getting sore. Maybe it’s a defect in my character, but a film about the creation of the intermittent windshield wiper just isn’t going to get me in a tizzy. And after watching the film, the concept remains the major defect in this good-natured, yet insubstantial, little movie.
The film begins in the 1960s, and features Greg Kinnear as Bob Kearns, a mild-mannered college-engineering professor who, on his way home from church one drizzly Sunday, becomes inspired to create a windshield wiper that can run intermittently. He attempts to sell his design to the Ford Motor Company, but is rejected, only to later find his wipers installed in brand new cars.
From this point, the movie becomes a David-versus-Goliath story, chronicling the following 12 years of Bob’s life as he struggles to receive credit for his invention from the giant corporation that stole it from him. It shows the effect this battle has on both him and his family, up until his nervous breakdown and the film’s climactic court battle.
At its base, the film is a character study. It examines the downright obsessive nature of Bob’s perseverant quest for justice in the form of recognition. Calling him fanatical is almost an understatement, since Bob sacrifices his marriage, his job, millions of dollars in potential settlement money and almost both his sanity and his children, all in pursuit of the praise he feels he’s due. Thanks in part to this, but mostly to the way screenwriter Philip Railsback has drawn the character, Bob comes across as an off-putting and generally unhappy creation in his stubborn narrow-mindedness and the way in which he gambles with his family’s devotion. Any likeability he ever has is due to the innate on-screen charm of Greg Kinnear, who is the closest thing the film has to a selling point.
For the die-hard Kinnear fan (there has to be at least one), Flash of Genius is an exciting prospect, since it gives the man more to do than being the usual romantic interest or supporting character. For everyone else, there’s not much else to recommend. Longtime producer and first-time director Marc Abraham is efficient enough, in a completely workmanlike and uneventful kind of way, making the film feel more like a TV movie of the week than anything that deserves to be in a movie theater.
Without Kinnear, the movie probably wouldn’t have made it this far. However, no matter how good a job he does within the limited means of his role, it’s not enough to make the movie anything other than forgettable. Rated PG-13 for brief strong language.